Basics of Argumentation: Purpose of Emotion

The Purpose Of Emotion: Pathos

Aristotle, you remember, pointed out that every argument has three characteristics, and all work together to persuade the audience (or to undermine the speaker's message). These are sometimes called modes of persuasion or rhetorical appeals.

  1. Ethos: Whether the messenger is believable—what can you guess about the messenger's character, etc.
  2. Logos: The logic and facts of the argument itself.
  3. Pathos: Whether the argument appeals to the needs and emotions of the listener.

(Some writers include a fourth appeal, Kairos, season or opportunity. The right time for me to argue that you should vote for my candidate would be a month or so before the election, not a year or two, and certainly not after the election. Is there an urgency to the appeal? Must we do something now?)

The difference between argument and persuasion is closely connected with emotion.

If I have argued a point successfully, my audience might believe it, but won't necessarily do anything. People won't usually change their behavior unless they feel it's a good idea: simple facts won't lead them to stop smoking, recycle their cans, vote for my candidate, or implement a new curriculum.

Note: Unless you are writing a diary entry, your purpose is never to make yourself feel better or to "get it all out there." The point here isn't necessarily for the writer to get emotional (angry or sad or whatever), but to use emotion as a tool to advance your argument.

Uses of emotional appeal

Some Fallacies of Emotional Argument

Scare Tactics (Argumentum ad baculum)

Sentimental Appeal (argumentum ad misericordiam)

Slippery Slope

Bandwagon Appeal

Emotion out of control

Many student papers on highly emotional topics (abortion, gay marriage, drug abuse, or gun control, for example) tell us more about the writer's feeling of outrage (or nausea) than they tell about the topic:

Abortion is the killing of a child before the birth. They usually take a needle and put it into the mothers womb, and kill it. Although that is not the only way to do it. There are other ways also of killing a child. There is a abortion called have abortion. It comes out of the womb half way, then they kill it. To me that is just sick. I think that it is in humane to kill a live child. Just think, it is alive. It needs oxygen to breath. It needs food to live. And if you don't take care of the baby, it wouldn't come out. Like if you do drugs or alcohol, it will ruin the child.*

There are so many things one could say about this paragraph:

Bottom line: There's really nothing in this little paragraph except emotion. Those who agree with the author are embarrassed because all the grammatical and factual errors send the message that their position is just a bunch of screaming. Those who disagree with the author will not be moved at all by the ranting. As an argument, it loses badly.

*This paragraph came from a paper posted on one of those websites that offers free papers you can download and submit as your own. Obviously this paper's own merits are somewhere below the D minus category, even without the plagiarism issue.

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Revised 6/25/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: